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One Big Question: What arsenal will Garrett Richards use in 2021?

He’ll need to figure out that third pitch.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Atlanta Braves Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Garrett Richards.

The Question: Which pitches will Garrett Richards use in 2021?

In a lot of ways, I think new Red Sox starter Garrett Richards is a good personification of the Red Sox rotation as a whole. That can be either good or bad, depending on how you want to look at it. On the one hand, he is a lot better than any number three pitcher they would have used a year ago, representing the much-improved depth in this group. On the other hand, there are a lot of questions.

Those questions obviously have to start with health, which if we’re being honest is the biggest question with Richards. Much like I said with Eovaldi, though, I don’t really have much to say here. Richards will stay healthy or he won’t, and I can’t really analyze that. I will say he has been relatively healthy in recent years, but even so there are workload concerns.

The Red Sox rotation as a whole has plenty of health and workload questions throughout the group as well. But just like the Red Sox rotation, the questions around Richards don’t stop at health. They also come down to performance. There is a lot of upside here, and there is plenty of reason to be confident assuming health, just like with the rotation. But honing more in on the subject at hand, Richards needs to prove that the upside that has been talked about since the day he signed his deal is more than just an intangible quality at which fans can grasp.

Atlanta Braves v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

The track record, in fairness, does indicate that is the case. Richards has not been able to pitch a whole hell of a lot over the last half-decade because of various injury issues, but when he has pitched he’s never really looked back. Last season he tossed 51 13 innings with a solid 4.03 ERA. In 2018, he had a 3.66 ERA over 76 13 innings. He didn’t even get to 40 innings in either of 2016 or 2017, but he did pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA in each season. So we’ve seen him pitch well, the question is just whether or not he can keep that up over a longer stretch of time, as he hasn’t thrown more than those 76 13 innings in a season since way back in 2015.

There are a lot of different directions I considered going in this season preview, and longevity was certainly one, but the thing I find the most interesting is just how exactly he’s going to pitch. And I don’t mean that in terms of results, but I mean literally what his approach will be with his arsenal. Last season, per Baseball Savant, Richards was mainly a two-pitch guy, throwing his four-seam and slider 48 and 38 percent of the time, respectively, with his other pitches all coming in at a rate less than 10 percent. Now, he did end his season in the bullpen and that skewed the numbers a bit, but even looking at just his starts a good number of them mainly featured just those two pitches.

It’s hard for me to see that working over a full season, so I’m curious to see what he’s going to do for a third pitch. To be clear, though, the four-seam and slider are good pitches and both will and should remain the focal points here. The fastball, even amid the injuries, has stayed steady around 95 mph, and the slider is still getting whiff rates up around 35-40 percent. Those are good bases. But it’s very, very difficult to start effectively with a two-pitch mix, and the way I see it there are three options for Richards to use as his third pitch.

The first option is going with his sinker, which had traditionally been his third pitch earlier in his career. As one would expect, it’s not going to generate a ton of whiffs, as that is generally now what sinkers are used for. In the past, however, it has helped him get ground ball rates up around or over 50 percent. Given some of the questions with the Red Sox infield defense, your mileage may vary on whether or not that is a plus. However, even with the ground balls, this has not been an effective pitch, not only inducing a low whiff rate but also just generally being hit hard and resulting in a lot of hits.

So while this has been his traditional third pitch, the Red Sox may want to use this as an opportunity for Richards to look into another offering. Along with the sinker, the 32-year-old (he’ll turn 33 in May) has also used a curveball frequently through his career, though mostly as a fourth pitch. By the numbers, this has actually been a good pitch for him in terms of both whiffs and results, but one has to wonder whether that would continue with more usage. It would, though, provide a change in velocity, as right now his slider is his slowest pitch at about 89 mph, and his curveball typically comes in in the low 80s.

And then there’s the option of going back and time and re-implementing a pitch from his Angels days. Back in the mid-2010s, Richards was utilizing both a cutter and a changeup, and using one or both could be his best option. The cutter seems to make the most sense to me, as it’s sort of a mix of a fastball and a slider, the two main pitchers in Richards’s repertoire. He also has Nathan Eovaldi in his rotation, who has an effective cutter of his own that he has recently re-implemented after a few years of not using it.

The issue with the cutter is that Richards had typically used it against righties, and the third pitch he should be looking for is something he can use against lefties. That was what his sinker has traditionally been, and that would of course be what the changeup could be. According to Baseball Savant, he hasn’t used the changeup since 2016, and even back in the early days of his career it was more of a show-me offering than something he leaned on. But just like the curveball, it worked well in low usage.

Richards is going to be one of the most interesting pitchers to watch on this team, being arguably the most important part of the rotation, which in turn is the most important part of the roster. Whatever happens, the fastball and the slider will be the focal points of his arsenal, but he’ll need to add a third pitch. The odds are he’ll turn back to the sinker as always, but I’d personally like to see him mix it up and try something new. That pitch hasn’t worked well in the past, and this team’s infield defense isn’t really begging for ground ball pitchers. But either way, this will be the thing I’ll be watching for the most for the rest of spring (once he irons out the mechanical issues that have plagued him thus far) as well as early in the regular season.